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McLuhan, Rather, and Modern Media July 30, 2009

Posted by Kate Ryan in Corporate Media, Fairness Doctrine, FCC, Journalism, Media.
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ratherWhen I was an undergraduate studying Communications at the University of Scranton, the first course we were required to take for our major was called “Communications and Media”.  It was one of those ginormous survey classes that the freshman took all together in a huge lecture hall.   Truthfully, I don’t remember much; I was away from home for the first time in my life and this was an 8 am class, need I say more?  What I do remember, however, was learning about Marshall McLuhan and his 1964 treatise, “Understanding Media” wherein he coined the phrase, “the medium is the message.”

McLuhan’s principle was that it really did not matter what the content of the message was that was being broadcast.  Instead, the medium that carried it influenced the way in which it was interpreted and understood by the receiver.  Written communication required active participation and therefore was best suited for complex information.  A person participating in reading would be able to stop and re-read anything that he felt needed more of his attention. Similarly, radio required less active participation and television requires no participation at all – which is why we see television news reduced to sound bites and little in-depth analysis.  Since the medium allows no time for interpretation of data – or deeper understanding – it influences the way we interpret the message. 

It would be interesting to see McLuhan’s take on the internet.  Though one would think that using the internet requires a great deal of participation by the receiver, it really does not.  They don’t call them “browsers” for nothing.  Utilizing the internet is a fairly passive activity and, as a medium, it is influencing the way we view and interpret information.  People really believe that they are reading when they are looking at news on the internet, but they are actually scanning – and probaby gleaning less message than they would get from television news.

A lot has been made in recent months at the demise of newspapers and other written media.  It is seen as the natural evolution of media away from the written word on paper to various forms of electronic delivery.  That may be, but is this evolution good for the country?

Dan Rather, former CBS News Anchor and current HDNet correspondent, called for action on this issue Tuesday in a speech before the Aspen Institute.  Calling for the Obama Administration to set up a White House Commission on public media, Rather said, “A truly free and independent press is the red beating heart of democracy and freedom.  This is not something just for journalists to be concerned about, and the loss of jobs and the loss of newspapers, and the diminution of the American press’ traditional role of being the watchdog on power. This is something every citizen should be concerned about.”

On one of CNN’s “Cafferty File” segments tonight, Jack Cafferty polled CNN viewers with the question, “Should government be involved in saving news media?”  Predictably, the answers that Jack put on the air were against it – saying that the government shouldn’t be “in control” of the media.  They sure were during the Bush Administration (Fox News), but who’s quibbling? 

Both Cafferty and the CNN viewers missed the point.  Government needs to be involved in saving media because the government is largely responsible for its destruction.

Beginning with the Reagan Administration (that successfully eliminated the Fairness Doctrine) and continuing with ownership deregulation under the Clinton and Bush the younger Administrations, the government set the stage for the destruction of the independent media.  Deregulation of media ownership has eliminated the diversity of opinion in the news marketplace by eliminating competition.  In 1983, 50 companies controlled 80% of the media in this country.  By 1990, that number shrank by over half to 23, and today an appalling 5 – that’s five – corporations control 80% of the media in the United States.

Rather’s point in asking for the commission was to ask the government to look again at ownership deregulation and see if the genie couldn’t be put back in the bottle.   Rather said “corporate and political influence” on newsrooms had damaged the industry and was cause for concern.  These massive conglomerates – like General Electric, Time Warner and News Corp. – only care about the bottom line, not serving the public interest.   And allowing these few firms too much control over the flow of news and information is dangerous for our democracy.

When Big Media get too big, local, independent and minority owners are pushed out of the market and off the airwaves.   Media consolidation means fewer voices and viewpoints, less diversity in ownership and programming, less coverage of local issues that matter to communities, and less of the unbiased, independent, critical journalism we need to prevent abuses of power (source: Freepress.net).

Back when I was a freshman in college I had a talk with a friend of my Dad’s – a local newpaperman – about the future of Journalism and if it was the right career.  He said to me that newspapers would always survive because you could use newspapers in a way that you couldn’t use televisi0n news.  “You can’t take the TV into the crapper with you when you need to ake a shit!”, he said.

But you can now.  You can even take your computer.

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This Little Piggy April 27, 2009

Posted by Kate Ryan in Economy, Health Care, Obama Administration, Politics, Public Health.
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Public Health officials in Valencia, Spain

Public Health officials in Valencia, Spain

I just got back from California.  I was at a family funeral, so it was difficult to see the news or know what was happening in the world because you’re so busy and distracted by everything else.  It was not until I was waiting for my flight to be called – as I sat watching CNN in the SanFrancisco airport on Saturday – that I learned of the latest terrible scourge rolling up from Mexico.

Swine Flu.

Let me digress for a moment and let you know that I have a positively full-blown phobia about the flu.  Ever since I read The Stand, by Stephen King, I have been convinced that the world will end by influenza.  The SARS and bird flu epidemics gave me anxiety attacks for weeks. 

Since I was not able to get more than bits and pieces of the reports, imagine my pounding heart and sweaty palms by the time I arrived back at home in Buffalo.  My husband groaned when I asked for details.  “There’s only been a handful of cases,” he sighed.  “Nobody here in the U.S. has died.  The news is just blowing it all out of proportion.”  I went to bed and rested easy – until yesterday morning, that is. 

I awoke to the news that the United States has declared a public health emergency and is moving 12 million doses of Tamiflu out of federal stockpiles.  The EU has asked its citizens to ban travel to the U.S. and Mexico.  And in Mexico, the hardest hit by the Swine Flu, 2000 residents have sickened and 146 people have died.  The United States currently has 40 confirmed cases. 

The government, to its credit, is warning the citizens of the symptoms of the Swine Flu and is encouraging people to seek treatment if they develop symptoms.  Apparently, Customs and Border Patrol agents will begin looking for symptoms at southern border crossings as well.  The response so far seems careful and measured.  What are not careful, however, are the breathless news reports everywhere you turn.  Our local news last night spent 10 minutes of a half-hour broadcast talking about the flu and if we were ready to do battle.  There are doctors showing up on the national morning talk shows to discuss the “possible pandemic” and the cable news shows are also leading Swine Flu. 

Its enough to make a paranoiac run to the ER.

And that’s the problem.  The hyper-vigilant, ever-present flu story has the potential to swell emergency rooms and clinics around the country with people like me.  Seriously, you wouldn’t know from watching the news that people are not dying en masse.  The media needs to show restraint when reporting these stories.  Is it important?  Yes.  Does it deserve the lead every hour of every news cast on every day?  No.  That’s how you incite a panic.

All I know is that if I eat a bad clam – I can’t be responsible for the consequences.